Ladies and gentlemen,
distinguished guests, and especially, Mr President,
I’m very glad to be here as a guest on this special day. It’s a particular honour to be present both for this event, and also later today for Lord Weidenfeld’s 95th birthday celebration. When there’s a 95th birthday taking place, I can’t help but think that perhaps I’m still rather young for my office, although it does get a little easier every day, thank God. For those of you who don’t follow Austrian politics very closely, I would like to assure you at this point that not all members of the Austrian government are as young as I am.
We have a very interested and driven crowd of people gathered here today. Yet, as most of you are probably aware, the majority of the population in Europe – and in particular in countries like Germany or Austria – sees the world a bit differently. We are living in a time where the number of people interested in politics is steadily dropping, where fewer and fewer people are participating actively in politics, and increasingly few people are making use of their right to vote. Many have reached the point that they will turn off the television as soon as a politician appears.
Yet, there are moments where everything is suddenly different – when the world holds its breath and is glued to a particular set of events. The Maidan movement was one of those moments. We were all on the edge of our seats; we were shocked by the high number of casualties, and we were impressed by the strength a civil society is able to develop when it has made up its mind about something.
We saw that while people in our countries are disengaging from politics, in other parts of the world – in this case Ukraine – there are many who would risk their lives to have a say in what is happening. We also were able to see that every individual has the possibility to bring about change.
Especially in these kinds of moments we need leaders who are prepared to defend their values and to follow their ideals, and at the same time, who can remain coolheaded enough to try to minimise the number of casualties during a crisis. The Maidan movement is closely connected to Vitali Klitschko; we are all familiar with the pictures that went around the world of him – injured and in temperatures below zero – trying to somehow separate the protesters and the police force with his big, powerful arms.
It wasn’t just this picture that went around the world, however, it was Vitali Klitschko himself. He attended meetings with a purpose, and at the Munich security conference, he deeply impressed not only me, but also much more experienced foreign ministers, with his resolve and his struggle for freedom and democracy.
He showed us all that peace and freedom are not to be taken for granted, and he proved to be extremely determined in the fight against corruption and for the rule of law. Yet although he was extremely strong-minded and ready to fight, he never managed to lose sight of the bigger picture in difficult moments. And when things got tough, he did something that is quite uncommon for political leaders. Politicians rarely step to the side, and it’s even more unlikely that they will be prepared to take a step back. However, when it became clear that the pro-European forces were threatening to split in the lead up to the presidential vote, he was the one to step back and let Poroshenko take the lead. Both were rewarded by the voters. You, Vitali, were rewarded for your discretion, and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your election as mayor of Kiev with an absolute majority.
Even though the Maidan movement was successful, and strong individuals were elected to lead both the country and the capital city, Ukraine is still in a difficult phase and faces considerable challenges. No one can be certain how the situation will develop in the days and weeks to come.
Many have tried to take the easy way out and claim that we should have been able to see it all coming. They blame the European Union and say that everything that happened was predictable or prearranged. But if we are honest to ourselves, none of us expected that Janukowitsch would refuse to sign the association agreement at the last minute, after three years of negotiation. None of us would have thought beforehand that the Maidan movement would be strong enough to force Yanukovych to leave the country and his office, just as no one knew that Russia would break international law to annex Crimea, and no one expected Russian soldiers to become active in eastern Ukraine.
For my generation in particular – a generation who only experienced the Cold War in history books, and who grew up with open borders – and for those of us who take for granted the increasing closeness of our countries, the scenario that broke out was almost unimaginable.
It’s a scenario that poses serious challenges, not just for Ukraine, but also for the European Union. It’s a reminder that Ukraine can’t be allowed to fall apart, and that the EU member states mustn’t let themselves be divided by this difficult situation. And finally, it’s a sign that we have hopefully managed to overcome the ‘bloc mentality’ that had sprung up again of late, and banished it to the history books where it belongs.
As during the Maidan protests, we now need political leaders who are prepared to stand up for peace, freedom and democracy, and who also remain willing to build bridges. Many are hoping that you, Vitali, will continue to be one of those leaders, and I am convinced that many of those here today will support you in this task.
Dear Vitali, at the end of a politician’s speech there is normally a round of applause – 10 percent of which is generally for the content, and 90 percent out of relief that the speech is over. In this case, I think that 100 percent of the applause today will be for you and your achievements – for your incessant struggle for peace, freedom and democracy. We all hope that you will continue to show discretion and attempt to build bridges, and we congratulate you sincerely on your prize. All the best!